With St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner it’s perfect timing for an addendum to this post from a few years ago. It discussed the largely overlooked reality that many nineteenth century Irish immigrants spoke Irish, some exclusively.
As it turns out, a curious exchange has turned up in a journal kept by the Irish Quaker merchant, Jacob Harvey, documenting a trip to Washington and Baltimore in April of 1820. Harvey had immigrated to the United States four years previous, in 1816, before entering the firm of fellow Quaker merchant and Irishman, Abraham Bell, in New York.
Recalling his arrival in Baltimore, Harvey mentions taking a room at the Indian Queen Inn, then under the proprietorship of David Barnum. By all accounts, the inn was among the city’s upmarket accommodations, a simple reminder that Harvey’s circumstances differed immensely from most of the impoverished Irish who would arrive in the following decades.
The merchant proceeds to recount his discovery at breakfast the following morning that his waiter was a fellow countryman:
Discovering him to be an Irishman I addressed him in his native tongue, but like too many of his countrymen,–the effect of English conquest was evident–he did not understand me. “What”, said I “not speak Irish”? “No indeed Sir,” replied Pat, while a blush of shame suffused his broad countenance “altho’ I come from where ’tis used.”
Harvey’s encountering another Irishman is of little surprise given that Maryland was a popular destination for Irish immigrants even before the nineteenth century; it’s the rare documentation of a discussion of the Irish language, brief though it is, which is striking.
Pat’s lack of Irish stands out given that the nineteenth century is commonly regarded as witnessing a severe downturn in the language’s fortunes. By the waiter’s own admission, he had come from an area of Ireland where Irish was spoken. Had he come from the environs of Dublin, the administrative center of British rule in Ireland, such ignorance would be anticipated.
Though Harvey likely thought it was simply an amusing exchange, his anecdote suggests an intriguing piece of evidence foreshadowing the steep decline Irish would face in succeeding decades–and a rather uncommon one to find in an American context. With hindsight, Pat’s “blush of shame” then presents a powerful symbol of Ireland’s often complicated relationship with its native tongue in generations that followed.
This post is by Ted O’Reilly, Manuscript Curator